Today's blog comes courtesy of Connor, who is just finishing a 6 week residential volunteering spell with us here on Islay. If you fancy following in his footsteps, we have vacancies for long and short term residential volunteers here on Islay in 2018, for both practical and visitor experience work. 

When I first arrived on Islay for my residential placement with the RSPB I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Disembarking the ferry I was filled with a mix of nerves and excitement as I had never attempted anything like this before, and it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t know a single person. On my first day Mark, the warden at Loch Gruinart, introduced me to the RSPB staff and I quickly felt part of the team and settled into island life. Keen to explore my surroundings, I donned my rucksack and set off around the various walks and trails that James, the Gruinart site manager, recommended. Whether it was climbing Beinn Bheigier or roaming around the sands of Machir bay, I quickly discovered the rugged beauty of Islay. 

Sunset over Loch Gorm

View over Machir Bay

Top of Beinn Bheigier

Fresh out of university, I’m pretty green when it comes to practical conservation, but the training that wardens Mark and Phill have provided me with have put me in good stead for my future career. My daily tasks ranged from habitat maintenance to survey work, and I even got to help out with some barnacle goose ringing, part of an ongoing scientific research program.

Flock of barnacle geese taking flight

One of the key projects on the Loch Gruinart reserve I was involved with was the restoration of a degraded peatland, which involved installing plastic dams in order to slow the flow and re-wet the peatland, providing additional habitat for dragonflies, breeding waders and improving conditions for sphagnum mosses. Other activities I was involved with included wetland bird (WeBS) and farmland bird surveys. As an ecologist and keen birder I really enjoyed seeing the diversity of avifauna around me, and improving my ID skills was an important part of my experience here. Although frustrating at times, trying to separate out the little brown jobs, I feel as though I’ve definitely improved my birding skills. 

Peatland restoration area

Stonechat

Whilst at The Oa reserve, different habitats yielded different tasks, and different wildlife, including; eagles, chough, and red deer. In preparation for the World War 100 memorial event, Dave (site manager), Phill (warden) and I were faced with the arduous task of repairing and laying a new section of gravelled footpath. Although it was tiring hard work, we maintained great camaraderie and spirit throughout. One of my favourite days at The Oa had to be when Phill and I climbed Beinn Mhor in search of eagle feathers and pellets, which were intended to be used as props for the BBC’s Winterwatch broadcast. Although our efforts were unfruitful, we still saw plenty of eagle action with some early courtship displays. I was truly astonished by the sheer size of these creatures. They were amazing to watch and a great birding tick, given that I’d only read about them in books prior to my stay on Islay. 

Red deer

During my time as a volunteer I’ve learnt a plethora of new skills, developed my understanding of ecology, and made some good friends along the way. I can honestly say that no two days have been the same, six weeks have just flown by. Whether you’re an aspiring conservationist, or just want to something different and give nature a helping hand, I would definitely recommend a stay with the RSPB on Islay at Loch Gruinart and The Oa reserves. 

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